If you make a post in your local mom group on Facebook about sleep training your baby using what is referred to as the "cry-it-out" method, you might as well be making a post about piercing your baby's ears, circumcision, or how formula was created by the Devil. If you have never heard of the term "cry-it-out", it refers to a sleep training method that has been used for centuries. Also known as the Ferber method, this type of sleep training involves putting your baby in their crib and leaving them to "self-soothe" (or cry) for a predetermined amount of time before giving them any sort of comfort.
Many parents will tell you that they used the Ferber method and it worked for them because the truth is that it does work. The real question is, why does it work and what effects are being done in the process? Yes, your baby does learn how to fall asleep on their own, but it's one of the harshest methods to get them to that point. Letting your baby cry-it-out works because your baby reaches a point when they give up the hope that you'll come back to them.
It can take babies up to 7 months or longer to develop what is called object permanence-having the understanding that when they don't see something it still exists. Until they reach that point in development, when they don't see you, in their minds it's as if you are gone forever. This is distressing for babies because they depend on you for their survival. So, leaving them in their crib and not coming back to them when they cry out for you is the same in their minds as them being forgotten and left forever. Eventually, they reach a point where they give up because they've accepted that no matter how much they call for you, you aren't coming back.
Other than that feeling of abandonment, let's talk about the damage cry-it-out does both developmentally and neurologically to an infant. Psychology Today says, "letting babies get distressed is a practice that can damage children and their relational capacities in many ways for the long term. We know now that leaving babies to cry is a good way to make a less intelligent, less healthy but more anxious, uncooperative and alienated [person] who can pass the same or worse traits on to the next generation." They continue to say that neuronal interconnections are damaged from the stress, trust is undermined, and the baby learns to shut down when faced with stressful situations instead of working through them. (Click here for additional consequences.)
Most of us know how tiring and frustrating it is to have a baby who wakes up every hour of the night, needing either mommy or daddy to help them fall back asleep. What we need to remember is that this little being has very little life experience, and they're learning just as we are as parents. The Ferber method is a sleep training method that works (we can't deny that). In saying that, there are more gentle options of teaching your baby how to fall asleep on their own that allow you to be there with them so they aren't feeling abandoned, or aren't reaching the level of stress where neurological damage is being done. Patience is key to all aspects of parenting, and sleep training is the first test of that patience. The question is, will you pass or fail?